6 Montgomery High Schools Ranked Among Top 100 in U.S.

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Montgomery County high schools turned in their strongest showing yet on the 2008 Challenge Index, the best-known ranking of U.S. high schools.

Six of 23 eligible schools ranked among the top 100 high schools in the country on the latest index, a creation of Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews that measures the number of college-level exams taken for every graduating senior. The schools are Richard Montgomery (32nd), Wootton (60th), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (64th), Walt Whitman (69th), Walter Johnson (76th) and Winston Churchill (98th).

All 23 schools appear on the list, which was published last month and is a sort of advanced-study honor roll that includes the 1,422 U.S. high schools that administered Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge exams at a rate of one or more per graduating senior in the Class of 2007.

Montgomery has never had six schools in the top 100 on the list, which appears in The Post and Newsweek. (Walter Johnson and Churchill did not make the top 100 last year.)

"It is an extraordinary accomplishment for our schools to consistently achieve such high rankings on the Newsweek list year in and year out," Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said in a news release.

Montgomery is among the most dominant school districts on the annual list. School system officials said no other district appeared six times in the top 100 this year. Few other large school districts can say that each of its high schools made the list, which covers schools in the top 5 percent nationally as measured by level of college-level testing. One of Montgomery's few peers in AP and IB study is Fairfax County, where all 24 high schools appear on the 2008 list.

Not everyone approves of the list, which is at the center of a movement toward embracing AP and IB as national standards for rigorous high school instruction. Some critics say the Challenge Index is too simplistic a measure of a school; others say it has fostered an unhealthy obsession with raising the numbers of children involved in AP and IB study.

But Montgomery parents follow the rankings closely and are quick to chastise schools that appear to slip, particularly higher-performing schools in Bethesda, Potomac and Rockville.

A quick comparison of this year's index and the one published in 2003 finds that every Montgomery school has improved its score on the index, and about half have improved their rankings. Scoring better is not enough because most competitive high schools give more college-level tests now than five or six years ago.

Kennedy High School, for example, raised its Challenge Index from 1.43 in 2003 to 1.53 in 2008 but went from 404th to 868th on the list. If a school improves its ranking on the index, that means its AP or IB program is expanding faster than those at competing schools.

Eleven Montgomery schools ranked higher this year than in 2003: Richard Montgomery, Wootton, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Whitman, Blair, Rockville, Einstein, Blake, Watkins Mill, Wheaton and Seneca Valley. Twelve ranked lower: Walter Johnson, Churchill, Springbrook, Poolesville, Paint Branch, Northwest, Sherwood, Magruder, Gaithersburg, Quince Orchard, Kennedy and Damascus.

Montgomery's top school on the Newsweek list, Richard Montgomery, will have a new principal this fall.

Moreno Carrasco, principal of Richard Montgomery since 2003, becomes director of secondary leadership training July 1. He replaces Gail Covington McBride, who resigned to become superintendent of schools in Bisbee, Ariz. Carrasco will work with administrators in middle and high schools "to ensure they have the knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes to implement the Board of Education's reforms," according to a school system release.

Carrasco, 50, has worked in the Montgomery school system for 24 years, the past 12 as a principal. He was named Maryland Principal of the Year in 2007 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Under his leadership, Richard Montgomery has built one of the premier IB programs in the country, as evidenced by its ranking on the Challenge Index: The school gave about five college-level IB and AP tests last year for every graduate, more than all but a few dozen of the nation's public high schools.

The new job allows Carrasco to give full attention to training principals, a skill he had cultivated in a consulting business in recent years. The side business got him in trouble this spring when curious parent activists found evidence that the business sponsored workshops on school days and, in some cases, at his school.

Carrasco said he followed school board policy, taking leave time when he acted as a consultant on school days. He said events scheduled at his school were coordinated through the school system's central office and offered free.

School officials said they investigated allegations of conflict of interest and found them unsubstantiated. Carrasco has discontinued the consulting work. Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Weast, would not say whether the job change was related to the controversy. The principal's job at Richard Montgomery will be filled by Aug. 1.

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